Naming and Reclaiming Women’s Stories from the Gospels: A Conversation with Claire McKeever-Burgett

(Photo provided by the author)

By Melanie P. Moore with Judy Beene Myers

Claire McKeever-Burgett’s Blessed Are the Women: Naming and Reclaiming Women’s Stories from the Gospels comes out Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024 from Chalice Press with a book launch at Parnassus Books in Nashville, TN. A self-described “creative contemplative,” McKeever-Burgett centers women in a creative retelling of ten Gospel stories interwoven with her own story. Part memoir, part contemplative text, part resource guide for circles of women, the book is purposefully structured for woman-led communities of faith.

Divided into two parts with five chapters each, the book features a memoir Prologue at the beginning, Interlude in the middle, a Benediction at the end by Becca Stevens, Founder of Thistle Farms, and a memoir Epilogue. Each of the ten chapters is focused a single woman from the New Testament and contains four sections: Herstory, Liturgy for Night Prayer or Morning Prayer (with music), Questions for Reflection and Curiosity, and Public Witness (an introduction to woman-led nonprofits doing work related to the content of the chapter). Full of resources, the Appendix includes a Glossary, a Small Group Guide, and—get this—a Blessed Are the Women Playlist (featuring contemporary music from a range of female artists including Beyonce, Adele, Mavis Staples, Lizzo, Sara Bareilles, The Chicks, Indigo Girls, Prince, and The Wailin’ Jennys, among others). There’s also a Blessed Are the Women Reading List.

(Photo provided by the author)

In a bold move, McKeever-Burgett speaks in the voices of the women she features, telling their stories from their perspectives, beginning with Elizabeth and Mary the mother of Jesus, and ending with Mary Magdalene.

“I describe myself as a liturgist at heart’” McKeever-Burgett said. “That is my truest language. The meaning of ‘liturgy’ is ‘the work of the people of God.’ Liturgists put language around what that work is. I believe language is embodied and it lives in us. My approach is this embodied approach. If what I’m praying does not live with me—where I’m going, how I’m voting, what I’m talking about with my children around the dinner table, then what am I doing?

“I wrote this book speaking and singing out loud. I want, when we read it out loud, to have a rhythm. That’s how I show up in the world. I understand the order of worship as a work of art. And, yes, I wanted it to be accessible. This was not an academic endeavor, it’s a poetic expression—how do we live this and breathe these practices.”

A native of Abilene, Texas, she graduated from Baylor University and Vanderbilt Divinity School, was ordained a Baptist minister, and then worked at The Academy for Spiritual Formation at The Upper Room in Nashville, TN. She also did work at Parker Palmer’s Center for Courage and Renewal.

Claire McKeever-Burgett (Photo provided by the author)

“I wanted these [chapters] to have a homiletic feel, to have the liturgy, one of the daily offices, out of that monastic tradition I’ve been so shaped and formed by. I don’t know what your reaction to these stories is going to be and that’s beautiful. When we’re sitting together in a group, it opens us to it. We’re not here to debate a woman’s story. We’re here to see it, to reflect on it.”

The “Public Witness” sections at the end of each chapter feature woman-led nonprofits that do work related to the topic of the chapter.

“I knew all along I wanted modern nonprofits that are woman-led to accompany each chapter. What do our prayers on Sunday matter on Monday if it’s not making a difference in real lives.”

She’s wildly inclusive in both her own writing and the types of nonprofit organizations she highlights, making space for women, “female-identifying,” and birthing persons as she presents the stories, the liturgies, and the resources in the book.

Taking on the voices of these women in the Gospels came about after she felt led to preach a sermon in the voice of the woman who anoints Jesus, who she named Eve. She was preparing a sermon to preach during Lent.

“I sat down to read the lectionary scripture passage and this is one, in my experience, is one of the more well known, well-read scripture passages. It’s the middle of Lent, the middle of Women’s history month, the week before Holy week. It’s placed specifically in the lectionary because she is thought to anoint Jesus before he is to die and she’s sort of leading us that way. I sat down and said, ‘What is her name, what is her story?’

“Her very presence scandalizes the men sitting around the table. It drove me nuts that, in my interpretation, she bears the brunt of their shame. They are projecting it onto her. That felt very real to me. I’ve experienced that from men, holy men. Like how dare I have a body and show up in it. All of that was coming up for me and, as a writer, I just wrote her story.

“I sing, and this song—all of the unnamed, ignored people throughout our history—were  sort of being channeled. The word channeling is key; this book, these stories, are a channeling. It is a spiritual practice. I just read the stories and asked them what more they wanted to say.”

Again, McKeever-Burgett is wildly inclusive in her approach to this work and these practices when she goes on to say, “This is not just something I get to do. All of us get to bring our creativity and curiosity and all of ourselves to the text. The practice of midrash is what I’m drawing from here—the beautiful practice of our Jewish siblings asking questions of the text.

“So, I would like to think that these stories and any of the stories that we tell can be part of that extra-canonical midrashim storied text. And then, once I spoke as Eve, I thought, who else wants to come forth?”

Although the authorial approach is bold, she is humble in presenting her work as part of a larger tradition.

“Womanist scholars, black women, indigenous women, have been doing this work forever, inviting us to circle up and share our stories. I see that being sung from women who have been sharing and believing their stories. I am joining a long line of healers and healing through writing and liturgy and story. It’s a gift and I want many more [stories] to come from many others, for all of us to tell us our stories of Miriam and Mary and Elizabeth and on and on, because we’ve had men telling us these stories.”

She lists among her influences Sue Monk Kidd, Karen Becker Fletcher (“who wrote a beautiful work on the Trinity from a Womanist perspective”), Alice Walker, Rebecca Wells, and others who are listed in the Blessed are the Women Reading List in the Appendix.

“Finally, the mystics. I think of them as our matron saints, St. Clare, Julian of Norwich, Hildegard, Teresa of Avila. They are my teachers and continue to be. Their work is really powerful and they’ve been giving us images of a feminine woman God. Patriarchy did a really good job of helping us not know that.”

After the book launch next week, McKeever-Burgett heads back to her hometown of Abilene, TX, where, one wonders if she might find controversy with the progressive and inclusive expression of faith in her book.

“I’m talking to the people who are drawn to this,” she said. “I’m ecumenical in my relationships, which I’m grateful for. The backlash hasn’t happened yet. Now, when I come to Texas, I’m going to my hometown, so we’ll see what happens in Abilene. I’m speaking at Abilene Christian University, which is Church of Christ. There are people in the academy who are more progressive and there’s a Church of Christ church in Abilene where they are ordaining female elders. We don’t discriminate. The point is to ever-widen the circle.”

Asked about how her book might be received given the current political climate around women’s health in Texas, McKeever-Burgett said, “It’s not interesting to me nor is it where I want to spend my time, debating whether women are human beings who get to choose what happens to their bodies. That’s not my work in the world. My work is to show that reproductive justice is the work of following the women and Jesus. When you find the women, you will find Jesus there following them too. That is where this book comes from, where my life comes from.”

And the institutional church? “I have a lot of people who are done with Christianity. And that’s the person I’m talking to at Parnassus [Books, for the launch]. I said, ‘Great let’s have a conversation.’ So my hope is that however you enter this—you could be the most staunchly theologically and socially conservative person—but I hope this can be a third way, in language from the mystics, that we’re not in this binary anymore, that we can have a more beautiful language. I believe this is the way of love, which is ancient. I don’t believe it’s new, but it’s what can invite us back so we can find a different way forward.

“Whether it’s from a more traditional lens like Christianity or not, I’m convinced that the new way, the third way, is the way we’re going to reclaim any of it. And I mean that in a macro way, with war, and all of the challenges we face. I guess I don’t worry [about backlash]. I did something on Instagram that said, ‘In the beginning were the women and the women were God and of God,’ and someone said ‘That’s blasphemy.’ But that’s the most [backlash] I’ve gotten.”

How might readers use the book?

“In the Appendix there is a small group guide that is the framework for how this can be used. That’s what I really do hope, for those who prefer a guide there are suggestions for pre-gathering and other aspects of leading a group. I want to be very generous with that framework because it has been so transformative in my life. The contemplative practice is throughout [the book]. We’re inviting silence and reflection that is open and honest. I hope the contemplative spirit is with us and with these words and this book. I invite folks to know they have their own inner wisdom that allows them to lead and breathe and preach and speak and circle up in ways that are theirs.

“We can get stuck in the reliance on the creator/preacher/leader. That, to me, is counter to this, which is inviting the creative spirit of each of us. And I think, for women in particular and those who identify as women, to have us at the center of the circle is what I hope to do with the story. We’re not sitting around and the center is a man’s story. What is at the center is a woman’s story. That is the creative spirit with which we are inviting our own to come forth. Everyone doesn’t have to identify as a woman, but the one(s) at the center are women.”

For more about Blessed are the Women and Claire McKeever-Burgett, you cal click on the links below:

Her website is here and contains links where you can order the book.
Her weekly Substack newsletter is Blessed are the Women (and other Good News for all of us).
You can register for the  (in-person) book launch at Parnassus in Nashville, TN, here.

(Photo provided by the author)
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